What Are Immunizations?
Immunizations (also called “vaccines”) protect people from diseases such as chicken pox, flu, and polio. Vaccines are given by needle injection (a shot), by mouth, or sprayed into the nose.
Most vaccines are designed to prevent a person from ever having a disease or so that a person will only have a mild case of the disease. When a person gets a vaccine, his or her body responds by mounting an immune system response to defend the body against the infection.
Since HIV can make it difficult for your immune system to fight infections, people living with HIV could benefit greatly from vaccines against preventable infections.
Also, vaccines don’t just protect individuals from disease. They also protect communities. When most people in a community get immunized against a disease, there is little chance of a disease outbreak.
Which Vaccines are Recommended for People Living with HIV?
The following vaccines are recommended for people living with HIV:
- Hepatitis B
- Influenza (flu)
- Pneumococcal (pneumonia)
- Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough). A single vaccine called Tdap protects adolescents and adults against the three diseases. Every 10 years, a repeat vaccine against tetanus and diphtheria (called Td) is recommended.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) (for those up to age 26)
Additional vaccines may be recommended based on an HIV-infected person’s age, previous vaccinations, risk factors for a particular disease, or certain HIV-related factors. Talk to your health care provider about which vaccines are recommended for you. For more details, read this information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): HIV Infection and Adult Vaccination.
Are All Types of Vaccines Safe for People Living with HIV?
There are two basic types of vaccines:
- Live, attenuated vaccines are vaccines that contain a weakened but live form of a disease-causing microbe. Although the weakened microbe cannot cause the disease (or can cause only mild disease), the vaccine can still trigger an immune response.
- Inactivated vaccines are vaccines that are made from dead microbes. There is no chance that an inactivated vaccine can cause the disease it was designed to prevent.
In general, to be safe, people with HIV should get inactivated vaccines to avoid even the remote chance of getting a disease from a live, attenuated vaccine. However, for some diseases, only live, attenuated vaccines are available. In this case, the protection offered by the live vaccine may outweigh the risks. Vaccines against chicken pox and shingles are examples of live, attenuated vaccines that, in certain situations, may be recommended for people with HIV. Talk to your health care provider about what is recommended for you.
Can HIV Affect How Well a Vaccine Works?
Yes. HIV can weaken your body’s immune response to a vaccine, making the vaccine less effective. In general, vaccines work best when your CD4 count is above 200 copies/mm3.
Also, by stimulating your immune system, vaccines may cause your HIV viral load to increase temporarily.
Because HIV medicines strengthen the immune system and reduce HIV viral load, people living with HIV may want to start antiretroviral therapy (ART) before getting vaccinated whenever possible. In some situations, however, immunizations should be given even if ART has not been started. For example, it’s important for people with HIV to get vaccinated against the flu at the time of year when the risk of flu is greatest. Talk to your health care provider about what is recommended for you.
Do Vaccines Cause Side Effects?
Any vaccine can cause side effects. Side effects from vaccines are generally minor (for example, soreness at the location of an injection or a low-grade fever) and go away within a few days.
Severe reactions to vaccines are rare. Before getting a vaccine, talk to your health care provider about the benefits and risks of the vaccine and possible side effects. Learn about vaccine safety and possible side effects.
What About Travel and Vaccines?
You should be up to date on routine vaccinations, no matter where you are going. If you are planning a trip outside the United States, you may need immunizations against diseases that are present in other parts of the world, such as cholera or yellow fever.
If you have HIV, talk to your health care provider about any vaccines you may need before you travel. He or she will know which vaccines are safe for you. Keep in mind:
- If a required immunization is available only as a live, attenuated vaccine, ask your health care provider if the potential benefits are greater than the potential risks. If so, your provider may be willing to give you a letter excusing you from getting the vaccine (although not all countries accept waiver letters.)
- If your CD4 count is less than 200 copies/mm3, your health care provider may recommend that you delay travel to give your HIV medicines time to strengthen your immune system.
To learn more, see Traveling Outside the U.S.
Is There a Vaccine Against HIV?
No. There is currently no vaccine that has been approved by the FDA to prevent HIV infection or treat those who have it. However, scientists are working to develop one. Learn about HIV vaccine research.